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Platoon detained for defying orders
Soldiers refuse to be cannon fodder

October 22, 2004 | Page 16

ERIC RUDER reports on the mutiny of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

"IT WOULD have been like a death sentence." That's how Spc. Peter Sullivan described the mission that he and the rest of his platoon, stationed in Tallil, Iraq, refused to carry out last week.

Headlines across the U.S. told the remarkable story of the 18 reservists in Sullivan's platoon, who unanimously decided to face disciplinary measures rather than carry out their orders.

The soldiers' ordeal began when the platoon's commanding officer ordered them on a mission to deliver fuel to Taji, a city 200 miles from their base. The tanker trucks they were supposed to drive had no armor and were badly in need of repairs--and the fuel they were supposed to transport had already been refused by another base because it had been contaminated and was no longer usable.

But the final straw for the reservists--some of whom have served for more than 20 years--was that their convoy wasn't going to be accompanied by the usual armed escort or air protection. Sgt. Larry McCook told his wife the trucks simply weren't safe enough for the journey. "It's like putting you in a boxing match, and putting handcuffs on your arms, and saying, 'Okay, box,'" Patricia McCook, Larry's wife, told ABC News.

After their refusal, the soldiers were put under armed guard and confined to tents outside their regular barracks. The military claims that all 18 soldiers have been returned to duty, after five were transferred to other units.

While they were in detention, other soldiers helped to sneak out information and phone numbers so that their families back home got news about the situation. Family members got in touch with one another to figure out how to help their loved ones, who could still face courts-martial or other disciplinary measures.

Brig. Gen. James Chambers quickly called a press conference in Baghdad to characterize the mutiny as "a single event that is confined to a small group of individuals." But the first known refusal of a combat order by a platoon of service members in Iraq has clearly shaken the brass--since the same grievances that drove this platoon to disobey are widespread among troops throughout Iraq.

"This is absolutely striking a nerve," Nancy Lessin, a leader of the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out, told the New York Times. "People are saying, 'This is the same thing that happened to my son,' and if the Army tries to spin this as 'just a few bad apples,' people need to know that these are common problems and what these soldiers did required a tremendous amount of courage."

This latest sign of rising discontent in the ranks is bad news for the Bush administration. For months, soldiers have told stories about being ordered into dangerous situations without adequate body armor, training and backup, but now at least a few have taken matters into their own hands.

The U.S. has the military might to inflict heavy damage on the Iraqi resistance, but this won't be possible if U.S. troops won't "perform." During the Vietnam War, widespread combat refusals began in 1969, signaling the end of any last hope among Pentagon hawks that the U.S. would prevail.

Pentagon officials will no doubt scramble to show that they're dealing with the issues raised by this platoon's refusal to follow orders--while at the same time sending the message that breaches in discipline will be dealt with harshly.

But the problems won't be easily fixed. The discontent is being fed by many sources. Many soldiers feel betrayed by Bush's promise that Iraqis would enthusiastically greet U.S. forces as liberators--and that the U.S. invaded Iraq in the first place to destroy weapons of mass destruction that obviously don't exist.

Others know about the bitterness of injured soldiers--and the anger of the families of those killed. Last October, Staff Sgt. Larry Gill was injured by a hand grenade that left his leg useless. The military gave Gill a Purple Heart--but offered nothing to deal with his bills, or help him make a living as a civilian.

"I've never questioned my orders," said Gill. "I've slept with rats and stood in the rain and wondered why I was standing in the rain, and, you know, for my children to have to do without based on a lack of income from me--it's frustrating. Where are the politicians? Where are the generals? Where are the people that are supposed to take care of me?"

Gill's story convinced Staff Sgt. Peter Damon to see his double amputation as a blessing in disguise. "In a way, I'm kind of lucky losing both arms, because I've been told I'll probably get 100 percent disability," Damon told ABC News.

As horrifying as these stories of U.S. soldiers are, the plight of Iraqis is worse. Close to a year and a half after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, U.S. jets have returned to pounding Iraqi cities--flattening homes and killing civilians.

Peace talks aimed at restoring some degree of calm in Falluja fell through as Socialist Worker went to press--after U.S. jets spent days hammering the city with 500-pound bombs. After destroying one of Falluja's most popular restaurants, U.S. officials were unfazed, claiming that it had been a "terrorist headquarters."

At the same time, U.S. forces are trying a different approach with Shiite cleric Moktada al Sadr--with some limited results. Last week, fighters in Sadr's Mahdi Army--who have battled U.S. forces tenaciously--received $400,000 in two days for handing over weapons to the Iraqi puppet government set up by Washington.

Sadr himself appears to be trying to convert the power and influence he won as a resistance leader into an electoral party that can win influence in planned January elections. The moderate Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al Sistani has given his blessing to a broad, Shiite coalition that includes Sadr--and has signaled that he might withdraw his support for elections that the U.S. desperately wants if Washington tries to block a role for Sadr.

But few believe that the weapons exchange will establish stability unless desperately needed jobs are created to give the poor and downtrodden who live in Baghdad's slums--and make up Sadr's base of support--some reason to have hope in the future.

This won't be easy, especially considering that a new United Nations report concludes that half of the $5 billion disbursed by the U.S. for reconstruction efforts while the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority was running Iraq has disappeared. Kurdish leaders deposited $1.4 billion of the money in a bank in northern Iraq, but no further information about the funds can be found, according to auditors. And another $1 billion--earmarked for hundreds of projects--has simply vanished.

Still, even as the U.S. lurches from one crisis to the next, it will be able to retreat, regroup and try again--until the antiwar movement and U.S. soldiers refuse to give their consent to the goal of occupation. We must take up the cause of soldiers who refuse combat--and demand that the U.S. bring the troops home now.

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